Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, May 6, 2021
( Matt York
DAN HIRSCHHORN We'll call it an investigation, a probe, a review, but we're not calling it an audit.
SACHA PFEIFFER The Philadelphia Inquirer will no longer use the word 'audit' when referring to the effort by the state's GOP to investigate the 2020 election. Why? Because words matter.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Also on this week's show, elections are under threat from so many directions that those who are sounding the alarm are having to get creative.
CNN CORRESPONDENT This is cable, so you can say it. How scared are you about elections going forward?
RICK HASEN [ON CNN] Well, I never expected to say I'd be scared sh*tless on CNN. [END CLIP]
RICK HASEN And then he called me Professor Pottymouth.
SACHA PFEIFFER And in Russia, the Kremlin's latest move to silence journalists is to label them foreign agents and make them declare it everywhere they go online and off.
JOSHUA YAFFA They could become professional breakdance buskers who work in the Moscow metro and they'd still be foreign agents.
SACHA PFEIFFER It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
SACHA PFEIFFER From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. This week, President Biden won the election in Maricopa County. Again.
NEWS REPORT Here's what Maricopa County tweeted: "the Arizona audit draft report from Cyber Ninjas confirms the county's canvass of the 2020 general election was accurate. And the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER That politically motivated and widely criticized recount had been pushed by Arizona State Republicans last December after they met with Rudy Giuliani. It was part of a multipronged and baseless quest to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Just as the case was closing on the Arizona election probe, Texas announced Thursday it would begin a, quote, 'comprehensive forensic audit of its own.' Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania persist with their Republican led efforts.
NEWS REPORT ...in the Republican legislature in Pennsylvania began pushing another bogus audit, this one funded by tax dollars, to prove widespread fraud that did not happen. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER All these attempts to thwart the will of the people have not gone unnoticed in Congress.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR You cannot have these states basically deciding who their voters are. If they had trouble in the last election, if they lost the presidency, then change your policies, change your candidates, change your messages. Do not try to change your voters. That is against the fundamental right to vote. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER That’s Senator Amy Klobuchar this week, discussing the Freedom to Vote Act. A new bill aimed at countering the nationwide right wing movement to restrict voting access. If you follow the coverage of this issue, you'll notice one word comes up, a lot.
NEWS REPORT Officials in one county are still defending the integrity of the vote against an audit ordered by the Republican controlled state Senate. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER Audit. It's the word Republican lawmakers are using to describe the process of examining election results, but is audit the best word to describe what's happening?
DAN HIRSCHHORN Huge questions remain unanswered about the extent to which partisan political players might have a role in the process. So we're not calling it an audit.
SACHA PFEIFFER That's Dan Hirschhorn, assistant managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His newspaper has started adding a box to its election coverage titled "Why We're Not Calling it an Audit."
DAN HIRSCHHORN We'll call it an investigation, a probe, a review. Often we'll describe it as a partisan probe or investigation or review. Other times we might put descriptions in quotations if they're attributed to other speakers, but we do not call it an audit in our own language.
SACHA PFEIFFER Do you think calling it an investigation or a probe is any less damaging or any more neutral?
DAN HIRSCHHORN I think it's more accurate. I won't speak to whether or not any of these are damaging. The job of journalists in choosing language is to be accurate and precise. Audit is not an accurate word to describe what we know to be happening.
SACHA PFEIFFER You mentioned that sometimes you'll put terms in quotation marks and I've read that the Republicans were calling this a 'forensic investigation.' So sometimes the Philadelphia Inquirer will put that in quotation marks, but I'm wondering if you think readers make a distinction. I mean, forensic investigation sounds big and bad and scary. Does putting it in quotation marks change that at all?
DAN HIRSCHHORN We believe our readers are smart and savvy enough to understand when we're saying something versus when we are relaying what others are saying. And even when we are quoting other speakers and describing it this way, we're providing a great deal of context and detail and reality check to make clear what it is and is not.
SACHA PFEIFFER This gets at such a difficult decision that newspapers have to make. This is how to use language, how to describe something precisely and accurately when we have so much difficulty now as a culture agreeing on facts. I'm thinking even about Guantanamo, which I've covered for years. I try not to use the word detainee because they're prisoners. I mean, detainee, I think understates what they are and certainly there's been a lot of criticism of the term 'enhanced interrogation.' I mean, say torture. I think most reasonable people agree that's what it is. And it feels like these election fraud claims raise the same problems. Audit is not the only word that is debatable. Have you found yourself wrestling over other words and whether they accurately capture what's happening when it comes to election fraud, voter subversion, etc.?
DAN HIRSCHHORN We haven't had to wrestle too much with our decisions over usages of the word audits or really any other words, because our coverage of voting rights and election administration has always been done in a way that is clear eyed and puts the facts first, which made our decision not to describe it as an audit, as actually a really easy one, because it's flowed out of all of the coverage that we've done. In the run up to the election, we were very clear eyed in describing what then-President Trump and his supporters were doing, what the facts were. We never described his false election claims as being, quote, 'offered without evidence' or anything of that sort. We simply called them false– because they are false.
SACHA PFEIFFER Have you felt the need to explain to Inquirer readers why you've made these decisions and why you wouldn't use the term audit, for example?
DAN HIRSCHHORN Well, yeah. In addition to our language in the body copy of the story itself, we have a box that is appended to these stories in print and online that explains that we are not calling it an audit, and why.
SACHA PFEIFFER Have you had any readers accuse you of being biased toward the Democratic point of view by not using the word audit?
DAN HIRSCHHORN Not that I've heard from directly.
SACHA PFEIFFER Now, in The Washington Post recently, Margaret Sullivan talked about the need for stronger language when it comes to election subversion, words like 'fraud-It.' Jay Rosen has said that journalists need to enter what he calls emergency-mode when it comes to covering calls of false elections and subverted votes. I'm wondering whether you feel like the Philadelphia Inquirer needs to enter emergency mode.
DAN HIRSCHHORN I'm not sure what emergency mode really means in a tangible way for our coverage. I think there are some critics who, in feeling that we don't go far enough, wouldn't actually be satisfied unless we did anything short of saying Republicans are bad. And that's not the role that we play. Even in this decision not to use the word audit, we're not making sweeping claims about the Pennsylvania Republican Party or any or even most elected Republican officeholders in Pennsylvania. We are making tailored decisions based on individual stories as the need arises. I don't know what is actually gained by us going further than we are. I don't think there are readers out there that are waiting for us to make some kind of more explicit value judgment. And when we do, all of a sudden they're going to have some greater clarity of understanding than they already do. Us saying that one side of the political debate here is not telling the truth, I believe is enough for our readers to make informed judgments.
SACHA PFEIFFER There are inevitably many more media outlets that are going to have to make this decision. We're now seeing that challenging election results is a political strategy intended to make voters and the public doubt the integrity of the election process. What's your advice to other media outlets who might not have thought about this yet? Do you believe they need to be ready and thinking now about how you're going to cover this and what you're going to call it, what words you're going to use?
DAN HIRSCHHORN The most important thing is to start this work well before the polls ever open. I was very proud of the way we did this in 2020. We were telegraphing to our readers for months beforehand that the election results would not be immediate in the way that they had become accustomed to. That the quote unquote lead in the vote margin would change as mail ballots were counted, that this process would almost certainly result in an earlier, quote unquote, lead for Donald Trump. That would slowly diminish as mail ballots predominantly cast by Democrats were counted. And that whatever the result of this, it's not fraud, it's not any kind of rigging – it is simply the system working, albeit slowly. It is the votes being counted. Journalists need to understand how the business of election administration is conducted in their states and in their counties so they can explain that to their readers.
SACHA PFEIFFER That all sounds so sensible. Sounds like the way the world should work. But is the world or at least the country as it is the way it is? Do you think that's good enough? Is it enough to correct the fact pattern?
DAN HIRSCHHORN I don't know if it's enough to to correct misperceptions and mis information. I don't know what else we could possibly do to correct misperceptions and misinformation. We offer our readers the truth and the facts. As you know all too well, people can pick and choose from a great deal of news media sources these days. We can't control what readers are finding elsewhere. We can control what we give them.
SACHA PFEIFFER Dan Hirschhorn is an assistant managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dan, thank you for talking about this. It’s really interesting.
DAN HIRSCHHORN Thank you so much.
SACHA PFEIFFER Coming up, what election subversion looks like here and in Russia, this is On the Media.